Skip Global Navigation to Main Content
Skip Breadcrumb Navigation
Official Text

Taiwan: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow by Richard C. Bush, Chairman and Managing Director, American Institute in Taiwan, at the 26th Convention of the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations, Honolulu, Hawaii, July 31, 1999

BG9911E | Date: 1999-07-31

I have been AIT's chairman for almost two years now and much has happened in that time. I feel deeply honored to hold this position and to have the opportunity to make some small contribution to U.S.-Taiwan relations and to the welfare of the people on Taiwan. My work is often very demanding. As some of you know I suddenly had to fly to Taipei ten days ago for a series of intensive meetings. After returning from Taiwan on Sunday, I then had to fly here to Hawaii since I promised to be with you this weekend. Some day, my body will get over jet lag. Still, I must confess to you that I am having a wonderful time and love my job.

I really began doing work related to Taiwan sixteen years ago when I started working for Congressman Steve Solarz. He is one of the best American friends that the people on Taiwan ever had, and I learned a great deal in helping him in his effort to promote human rights and democracy on Taiwan. Much of what has happened over the last dozen years were steps that he called for in the early 1980s. I think it also a tribute to Steve that when, last week, the Clinton Administration became concerned about the cross-Strait situation, it sent me to Taipei and Stanley Roth, Steve's most famous former staffer, to Beijing.

I know that you are interested in my visit last week to Taiwan, and I will talk about that in a few minutes. But I think your conference has properly identified the need to establish a sense of perspective: to look where Taiwan has been and where it is going.

Of course, one can have different types of time perspectives. One is what one might call geological time. In this regard, I want to bring to your attention one of the interesting but useless facts that I have come across in my effort to learn as much as I can about your homeland. That is, the island of Taiwan is literally moving toward the Chinese mainland! Geologists tell us that because of the movement of tectonic plates, the Taiwan Strait is getting more and more narrow. I imagine that this audience in particular might worry about this trend, because it means that someday Taiwan to bump up against the Fujian coast. But you can relax, for it will take few million years for that day to arrive.

Let us not worry about geological time and think in terms of a few generations, and about what has happened on Taiwan during the lifetime of those of us who are getting more and more gray hair, or losing what hair we have.

The Taiwan Miracle

If we step back and look at what the people on Taiwan have achieved over the past five decades, we really have to marvel.

* Fifty years ago, the Nationalist government was retreating to the island, with little hope that a
PLA invasion could be stopped. On Taiwan itself, the memories of 2-28 were still vivid and
painful, and the White Terror had just begun. The economy was in bad shape. Per capita GDP
was less than $200 in current dollars.

* Forty years ago, the government was only just beginning to institute policies that would foster
export-led growth and growing prosperity for the island's population. Per capita GDP was still
under $200. The year before, in 1958, the armed forces with American help had defended
Jinmen against a fierce artillery barrage. One year later, Lei Chen would attempt to form the
China Democratic Party and then spend the rest of his life in jail as a result.

* Thirty years ago, per capita GDP was $320. Martial law continued. The election of
supplementary legislators had just begun. And President Nixon secretly began the U.S.
rapprochement with the PRC.

* Twenty years ago, when the per capita GDP had quadrupled but was still only $1760, Taiwan
was reeling from the shock of U.S. de-recognition and the coming termination of the mutual
defense treaty. There was anxiety about whether the new unofficial structure of relations with
the United States would serve Taiwan well. In the midst of the shock and anxiety, the
dang-wai began organizing a network of Formosa Magazine offices around the island; the
response of the authorities was the Kaohsiung Incident.

* Ten years ago, per capita GDP had quadrupled again to around $7000. The process of
political liberalization and democratization had only just begun, and it was not clear how far
that process would go. Trade with the mainland was growing but investment was still limited.

* Today, in 1999, Taiwan is a modern, urban, wealthy, middle-class, and increasingly
cosmopolitan society with a per capita GDP of over $13,000, a sharp contrast to the poor,
rural society that it was fifty years ago.

Substantive relations with the United States are better than ever. There is a growing economic interdependence with the mainland: two-way trade is over $20 billion and contracted investment exceeds $35 billion. Again, this was unthinkable only fifteen years ago.

Most important, Taiwan has a thriving democratic system, where citizens elect the president and vice president as well as their representatives in the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly. The press is free and aggressive. I remember on my first trip to Taiwan after I began working for Congressman Solarz. He gave a speech to a dang-wai audience in which he praised Taiwan's economic miracle and called for a political miracle. Whenever he spoke of Taiwan's achievements in the economic and social spheres, the TV lights would turn on and the cameras would roll. Whenever he argued for similar progress in the political realms the lights would go out and the cameras would stop operating. On this last trip to Taiwan, TV cameras and reporters followed me everywhere I went, including speeding down the highway. I stayed last week in the house of AIT's acting director, and one camera crew managed to get a shot of us eating breakfast in the dining room. Fortunately we were adequately dressed.

As a result of these political changes, the authorities as a whole are accountable to the people, and the leaders of the executive branch are accountable to the public, the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly, and the mass media. This political transformation from the harsh authoritarian system of the past is even more startling than Taiwan's social and economic modernization, for democratization is not an easy process and it occurred on Taiwan without undermining the island's stability. It is one of the most remarkable examples of peaceful political change in the last half-century, and a point of reference for the mainland.

Along with Taiwan's democratization has occurred another development, which is equally important and supports democratization. That is the emergence of what Western political scientists call civil society translated variously in Mandarin as shimin shehui, minjian shehui, or gongmin shehui. This civil society in Taiwan is made up of non-governmental organizations that dedicate their efforts to public affairs in fields like cultural preservation, historical documentation, women's rights, the environment, nuclear power, consumer protection, and indigenous peoples. Religion is flourishing in Taiwan, not just in the building or renovation of temples but also the founding of new sects. To me, the most interesting of these new sects is the Tzu-chi Kung-te-hui, which has channeled the energies of its members into charitable activities, to the point that it has become an important actor on the global humanitarian scene. Tzu-chi has impressively supplemented Taipei's welcome contributions in places like Central America and the Balkans. Taiwan's transformation has been no better expressed than by Lee Teng-hui, who in the past has spoken of the woe of being born Taiwanese (sheng wei Taiwan ren de beiai) and now speaks of the good fortune of being born Taiwanese (sheng wei Taiwan ren de xingfu).

Now I try to remain objective about Taiwan. I am aware that economic modernization on Taiwan has brought problems like environmental pollution. The population is aging, and social change has disrupted the traditional family system and fostered problems like juvenile delinquency. Identity has been a subject of extended debate. There is concern about the role of money, corruption, and gangs in politics. Some believe that spiritual values have suffered and must be revitalized. These are all serious problems, the problems of any open modern society. By and large, however, they are the consequences of success, not of failure. As we enter the twenty-first century, Taiwan is adapting well to the trends of democracy, global economic integration, and the information revolution. As an American whose work is focused on Taiwan, I would not trade the current period for any time in the last fifty years.

Looking Forward

What lessons and inspiration should we draw from the past for the future?

The first lesson is that the road of progress never ends. As I suggested above, the remarkable modernization of the past fifty years has produced problems in its wake, some of which could not be anticipated. At the same time, there are vestiges of the previous society like organized crime that still have yet to be purged (this is certainly not just a Taiwan problem!). In the economic area, maintaining Taiwan's economic competitiveness will remain a huge challenge. The best American and Taiwan companies understand that the only way to stay ahead is to keep pushing to the frontier of competitiveness and that economic liberalization and globalization is a useful stimulus. As a political scientist and someone who works in Washington, I know that no democratic system is ever perfect. I am particularly interested in ways in which Taiwan's democratic system can be improved so that it better reflects the will of the people and protects them from the abuse of power. So it is never a good idea to sit back and assume that the achievements of the past are enough. It is always necessary to identify what improvements might be made and then make them.

Still, a second lesson is that the Taiwan's achievements of which you and your brothers and sisters back home should be very proud should give the people and authorities on Taiwan confidence as you face the future. Having met challenges in the past, they can meet the challenges that are still to come. Having overcome obstacles in the past, they should be able to overcome the obstacles that they are yet to face. When predicaments do occur, it is all too easy to lose one's confidence and become consumed by a sense of disaster. Yet I think if the people and authorities on Taiwan step back and look at what they have accomplished in spite of the difficulties, this record of achievement should more than balance any new sense of anxiety. Of course, one should not get over-confident, but neither should one be excessively anxious.

A third lesson is that Taiwan cannot ignore its neighborhood, and it must acknowledge that its neighborhood is not completely quiet and stable. It may be millions of years before Taiwan bumps into Fujian, but the PRC is still an unavoidable reality.

In some respects, Taiwan has already recognized that the Mainland represents an opportunity. There are now 30,000 Taiwan firms that have contracted for around $30 billion in investment in the PRC, and over three million mainland Chinese are employed in Taiwan-invested firms. Over 200,000 Taiwan business people now live and work in the PRC. Cooperation also occurs in many other areas: education, scholarship, religion, sports, and so on. These people-to-people contacts are important, for they illuminate the common interests that exist across the strait, and those common interests serve as both as a disincentive to conflict and as a social and economic foundation on which other forms of cooperation, including political cooperation, can be built.

Obviously, none of us knows what sort country the PRC will be in the future and what kind of role it will play in the East Asian region and the world. The United States' long-term approach, as President Clinton said in April, is to encourage the right kind of development in China to help China grow at home into a strong, prosperous and open society, coming together, not falling apart; to integrate China into the institutions that promote global norms on proliferation, trade, the environment, and human rights. The PRC has already moved down this road in the past twenty years, and we should all hope that it continues to do so, for that will contribute to peace, stability, and prosperity in the East Asia region and be good for Taiwan as well. Yet President Clinton has also stressed the need for realism: I believe we have to work for the best, but do it in a way that will never leave us unprepared in the event that our efforts do not succeed.

Taiwan, of course, has a special interest in this question because it is separated from the PRC by only a narrow strait. It is my impression that most elements of the political spectrum on the island understand that Taiwan cannot close itself off from its neighborhood. The challenge is for both sides to work out how to be good neighbors. Taiwan too has to be realistic. It cannot afford not to prepare for the worst, and the United States will help it prepare. Taiwan need not act in a way that excites the worst fears and misperceptions of the other side. Instead it should strive for the best and work to bring it about. As I have noted, Taiwan has already contributed to economic growth and social welfare on the Mainland, and it serves as a good example of democracy in action. With creativity, prudence, and political will, it can help foster a more peaceful neighborhood, assuming that the other side is equally creative and forthcoming.

The United States Role

Where does the United States fit in all of this? Actually, one of the reasons that I believe that Taiwan's people and authorities should remain confident is the policy of the United States. For the last fifty years, the United States has sought to create an environment in East Asia in which peace, stability, and prosperity are fostered and in which Taiwan can thrive. It was partly the advice of our economic advisors that led to the policy changes forty years ago that created Taiwan's economic miracle. The United States encouraged democratization and human rights. Taiwan of course did not initially accept the U.S. opening to the PRC, but I think that looking back many would agree that this is not a zero-sum game, and that Taiwan's security and prosperity are better off when U.S.-PRC relations are good. Fifteen years ago, there were high tensions and little economic contact across the Taiwan Strait. Would anyone really want to go back to that situation?

Moreover, there is broad support for Taiwan among the American public, the media, and the United States government. From time to time, there are differences between the Congress and the Executive Branch, but these are more over implementation than over goals. On fundamental objectives, there is broad and deep consensus.

As the United States has sought, with broad public support, to foster a positive environment in East Asia, it has naturally had a long-term concern about the security of Taiwan. And it will continue to do so, pursuant to the Taiwan Relations Act. Just three months ago, President Clinton said, "Our interests lie in peace and stability in Taiwan and in China, in the Strait and in the region, and in a peaceful resolution of the differences. We will do what is necessary to maintain our interest." Nor should you worry that because of the recent crisis in U.S.-PRC relations, the United States in order to resolve the crisis will make concessions on issues such as Taiwan, WTO, human rights, Tibet, and non-proliferation.

Moreover, I believe strongly that people on Taiwan have nothing to fear from the approach of the United States to cross-Strait relations, which is part of our one-China policy. That approach consists of five principles:

* The United States insists that the Taiwan Strait issue be resolved peacefully.

* The Administration believes that constructive and meaningful dialogue and cross-Strait
exchanges are the best way to resolve cross-Strait differences.

* It believes that these differences should be resolved by the two sides themselves.

* The United States will remain even-handed in its approach to cross-Strait dialogue, and not
apply pressure to either side.

* The Administration believes that any arrangements concluded between Beijing and Taipei
should be on a mutually acceptable basis. And because Taiwan is a democratic system, it is
the Taiwan public that ultimately must approve any such arrangements.

The United States does hope that the two sides of the Strait will show creativity in approaching cross-Strait issues. The situation in the Taiwan Strait is more stable than it was three years ago, but it is still not stable and that is not in anyone's interest. We hope that both sides will demonstrate the creativity to find ways to foster more stability, more mutual trust and less tension and to take advantage of the opportunities for cooperation.

I was in Taiwan last week to discuss our respective approaches to cross-Strait relations in the wake of President Lee's statement that cross-Strait relations were special state-to-state relations. I had a very good exchange of views with President Lee, Vice President Lien, and other high-level officials. I played a little bit of golf, and as I said I was followed around incessantly by the media. I did not go to Taipei as a mediator or to exert pressure; I went to understand. In my intensive round of meetings I gained a better understanding of Taiwan's views; the Taiwan side gained a better understanding of Washington's views. I reiterated the great importance that the United States government, from President Clinton on down, places on the one-China principle, the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait issue, and on the utility of cross-Strait dialogue. The one-China principle is the cornerstone of United States policy. For the past twenty-plus years, during six Administrations -- four Republican and two Democratic -- this principle has fostered a peaceful regional environment, helped facilitate Taiwan's prosperity and democratization, and contributed to cross-Strait cooperation.

Of course, how to precisely define the one-China principle and how concretely to put it into practice, is best left to the two sides of the Strait to decide on a mutually acceptable basis. How to promote cross-Strait dialogue, exchanges, and cooperation is also for the two sides to work out.

The U.S. approach is quite simple: whatever reduces tensions, promotes dialogue, and fosters regional peace and security is good. Whatever increases tensions, obstructs cross-Strait dialogue, and leads to regional conflict is not good. In the near term, the planned visit of Mr. Wang Daohan will provide an important opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and foster cooperation, and we hope that both sides will work to ensure its the success.